There are three big holes in the government’s defence of the drone killings of 3 British citizens in Syria in this last month. One is the legality when under Article 51 of the UN charter every country has the right of self-defence, but any armed attack would have to be “imminent or actual”. More specifically the need for pre-emptive self-defence must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. That does no conceivably fit what happened. Cameron told the Commons that Khan and Hussein, the two British jihadists killed, had been planning to attach public commemorations in the UK, and No.10 later specified VE Day in May and Armed Forces Day in June, long before the two men were killed in August. On that basis the killing was clearly not within the law.
Second, there is the much more blatant fact that these killings defy the unambiguous vote of the Commons in 2013 rejecting UK bombing in Syria. It is clear that Cameron intended at the end of July this year to recall Parliament which had just gone into recess in order to win a vote to start a UK bombing campaign in Syria, but at the last minute pulled back. Then by September the abrupt rise of Jeremy Corbyn made it unlikely, or at least uncertain, that such a vote could then be won, so Cameron and Fallon decided to make the issue a prior settled one in order to get their way. But this is a blatant abuse of Parliament for which the government should be expressly censured.
A third very serious gap in the government’s handling of this episode concerns the legal advice received by the PM and National Security Council from the government’s Law Officers. Jeremy Wright, the attorney general, has been keeping a very low profile, and it is crucial that that advice, and the reasons for it, should now be fully disclosed, both regarding these drone killings already executed and any that might organised in future.
Cameron never answered any of these charges in the House, but concentrated instead on his own agenda (as he always does, irrespective of the questions asked). That was to try to demonstrate his readiness to take tough action against ISIS and to win plaudits from the more bloodthirsty parts of the press. But above all, he should not be allowed to get away with operating drone killings as a matter of policy without any parliamentary sanction.
Watching Osborne this morning on the Andrew Marr show answering questions on whether Britain should bomb Syria and other foreign policy matters, one did wonder where exactly Cameron fitted. Increasingly Osborne, arguably the most formidable politician in the House at the moment, has already assumed the premiership he has coveted for so long. All the detailed policy-making is now already in his hands, and that may suit Cameron quite well since he, like Blair, has never been one for detail (as PMQs exposes relentlessly week after week). He prefers to be the front man, running with whatever is the latest story, even if it turns out to be the opposite tomorrow. There is no-one so slippery as Cameron so as to be able to somersault every day as though that was the most perfectly normal political routine. But he is no longer the hard man behind it all. And he’s not even able to perform his diminished role very well.
Cameron’s botched attempt to reconcile a net immigration target of below 100,000, when the actual figure today has reached 330,000, with even a smidgeon of humanity towards the huge and rising death toll in the Mediterranean has earned him nothing but contempt, almost made worse when he was forced abruptly to change his mind, but then only to the minimalist degree ignominious by comparison with the German example. Again, over the EU referendum strategy, Cameron has boxed himself into a corner largely of his own making, He’s already had to give up demanding British opt-outs from EU employment regulations because Berlin and Paris predictably wouldn’t grant it, and now he’s being told that Britain should take in more refugees if he wants a hearing for its ‘catalogue of demands’. At home too he’s been told he has to reverse his plan to put the machinery of government at the service of the In campaign.
Europe was always the Achilles’ heel of the Tory party, and it looks like being so again. Eurosceptic Tory MPs are demanding to be allowed to campaign for the anti-EU side and already planning to use their conference later this month with criticisms of Cameron’s renegotiation tactics. Cameron’s post-election honeymoon is over, and his room for negotiation over Europe is shrinking fast. If in the event the vote over Europe does go against him, it will not only diminish Britain but wreck his legacy. But Osborne will survive, untarnished.
There never was a truer example of ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’. His article in the Observer today is a gift to his opponents, but it does even more damage to himself. He reveals himself as increasingly deserted even his previous closest followers, an utterly broken man watching everything he stood for swept away before his eyes. He has gone from opposition to delusion, from hysteria to denial. But what is perhaps most disturbing of all is that he can’t, as he himself candidly admits, understand why the Corbyn earthquake is happening. He just blankly refuses to acknowledge the passionate resentment which he and New Labour created by laying the foundations for the financial crash of 2008-9 and making the squeezed middle and brutally punished poor pay for it, by taking Britain without any constitutional approval into an illegal was with Iraq, by introducing into politics the hated regime of spin and manipulation , by indulging now his squalid lust for money-making, and by clearly having no more overriding desire than to strut the world with Bush.
He describes his opponents as trapped “in their own hermetically sealed bubble”, when that applies exactly to himself. If what he says were really true, why has the Labour electorate swelled to over 600,000, 50% larger than he managed even at the height of his pomp when so many were glad to be rid of the Tories on 1st May 1997? Why is he so unfeeling and unapologetic about aligning the New Labour alongside the Tories in pursuit of austerity from 2010 onwards, especially since Osborne’s policy (to shrink the State) has been so dramatically unsuccessful in reducing the deficit? Why did he urge the Blairites to support the government’s welfare bill which opposed every tenet of the real Labour Party? Why did he push for privatisation of the NHS and other public services? Why did his acolyte Mandelson say “New Labour is “relaxed at people becoming filthy rich”, and proved it by letting inequality balloon to even highe heights than under Thatcher?
So after doing all those things, how does he expect Labour members and the country to treat him? After a 20-year temp;orary iruption of hi-jacking the party down a route utterly alien to its founders, in order to ingratiate himself with corporate and financial leaders on their terms, how can he imagine that anyone wants him back? He has a lot to learn, less egoism, more humility.
Cameron’s decision to toss another 45 peers, mostly party hacks, into the Lords is really shameful. The motivation is to remove any obstacles to the swift and easy transmission of government business. Since the whole purpose of Parliament is to hold the Executive (the government) to account, it is truly scandalous that the leader of the Executive has untrammeled tights to appoint whatever number of new peerages will defeat this purpose. This is a serious source of corruption at the very heart of government. I certainly strengthens the case for an independent Parliamentary Ombudsman who could make a formal statement, as presidents do in other European countries, condemning what he/she believes is a constitutional abuse designed to sidestep the proper working of Parliament, as well as giving MPs and indeed members of the public the opportunity to make a formal protest.
There are several other aspects too to this sordid affair. Of the 45 new peers, 32 are former politicians and 7 used to work in the party machines, making a total of 85%. Moreover, of the 189 peers created between the two elections of 2010 and 2015, no less than 68 had been elected politicians and 26 had been political staff – that is fully half of the new intake. The Lords is increasingly becoming a repository for Westminster bubble insiders, including those most recently rejected by electors at the polls just 3 months ago.
It’s also becoming a repository for donors to the Tory party. Of course it has been accepted ever since the time of Lloyd George, the arch peerage salesman, that the selling of honours was illegal. But is there much difference between an outright sale and making a large contribution to Tory party funds and then waiting for the Tory party hierarchy to reward such generosity? It doesn’t always happen of course, but an academic stidy has shown that giving large sums of money does have a remarkably positive effect on the donor’s talents being recognised.
Then there the numbers. There are now 828 members of the Lords and if MPs are added there is grand total of Westminster legislators of 1,476. Cameron said before the election that he would cut both the number and cost of parliamentarians. What he has done in practice is the exact opposite – he has appointed new peers at a faster rate than any PM since life peerages began in 1958, even more than Blair.
Packing the Lords with cronies is a shameless way for the PM to extend his patronage and secure compliance as well as smoothing the way for an uninterrupted legislative programme. Having lost votes in the Lords over devolution, the EU referendum and EVEL (English votes for English laws), Cameron is determined to stop that happening again. That he has the idiosyncratic power to do so only exposes how drastic is the need for radical Lords reform.
The report that in just over 2 years up to February last year no less than 2,380 disabled claimants died within 2 weeks of being assessed as fit for work and then having their benefit either reduced or stopped altogether, is beyond shocking. It is arguably the most damning statistic yet of the sheer callousness and brutality of this government towards the most helpless victims in our society. But there are further profound issues behind this dreadful story. The most important issues are holding to account those who are responsible for this utter tragedy and even more important still, the power to stop this lethal policy in its tracks. On both there is at present a vacuum.
Iain Duncan Smith by any measure of integrity ought to resign, but he almost certainly won’t. And Parliament should have the power to trigger an immediate emergency debate, in this case demanding the policy be suspended until there had been a rapid inquiry into the work capability assessment with recommendations (if that is the result) that the policy be stopped or drastically changed, and the government if it lost the vote should be obliged within (say) 3 months to implement the recommendations in full. Neither of these power currently exists, and it would require an almighty change in the whole process of government accountability for these powers to be granted, or rather forcibly extracted from the Westminster establishment. A few of us however are laying plans for a Commission on Parliamentary Democracy and Constitutional Reform to bring this about.
There is another ugly side to this story. Some of us have been demanding these figures for a very long time. I myself initiated a debate in the House 3 years ago in response to the death of a constituent in just these circumstances. The DWP refused in answer to PQs to give the figures, almost certainly at the instigation of IDS. It is highly significant that we only now know the figures as a result of a Freedom of Information request which the DWP rejected, but the Information Commissioner to his credit overruled that block. The DWP then had the gall to argue that they had always intended to publish the figures anyway! Moreover the Information Commissioner’s ruling was delivered in April, and still it has taken the DWP 4 months to implement it, no doubt waiting till the dog days of August to release the information to try to ensure its minimum impact.
This is a terrible shameful example, not only of human cruelty to the severely disadvantaged, but of the complete breakdown in morality of the Cameron/Osborne/IDS government. We now need that Commission on Parliamentary Democracy very badly.
The arrogance and intolerance of the Blairites is breathtaking. Faced with the prospect of a runaway victory for Jeremy Corbyn who has come from repudiated outsider to front-runner in scarcely more than a month, their sole response is to prepare a coup against Corbyn if he is elected leader under the section 47 procedure of the Labour Party rules. It is hard to exaggerate the folly and selfish indulgence of such a move. For the Party to spend 3 months in continuous debate and hundreds of hustings in accordance with the legitimacy of Party democracy, and then have an insider palace coup seek to overturn it via back-rooms intrigue within the PLP would be utterly disreputable. It would split the PLP and likely also the Labour Party as a whole. Maybe that is what they want: if they cannot get their own way, they would prefer to bust the Party rather than accept democratic choice. That has always been the way: the Right has always used the Party as a base for its own domination and access to government, while the Left has always remained loyal to the Party it seeks to represent.
Read more “The reason Corbyn’s winning is that he rejects the Tory austerity ideology, and so do a majority of the public” »
The revelation that British air crews have been engaged in bombing operations against ISIS in Syria for the last 10 months, in strict defiance of a Parliamentary vote two years ago prohibiting this, should be a matter where ministerial heads roll. The excuse given by the Prime Minister’s office that they were embedded with US forces and not operating under a British chain of command is risible. The vote in 2013 was explicit that there was not to be any British military involvement in the Syrian conflict. For Fallon as defence secretary then secretly to allow 20 British personnel, including 3 pilots, to take part in U.S.-led bombing missions against ISIS targets in Syria is direct defiance of a Parliamentary red line irrespective of whether British air crew were operating under U.S. or British command structures. This a very serious abuse of Parliament. If Parliamentary sovereignty is to mean anything, Fallon should stand down or be forced to resign.
Read more “So Tory ministers lying to Parliament is now OK?” »
Yesterday the Dutch High Court ruled that the Dutch government was not doing enough to meet its climate change targets and instructed it to take more decisive action to achieve them. Potentially this opens the way for similar action to be taken against other EU governments, including the UK, if they too are falling well short of their targets. But we should be cautious because there are two reservations. One is that the Dutch government has the right to appeal. The other is that the court ruling was based on human rights principles rather than directly on environmental considerations, and this may well be challenged. Nevertheless there is no doubt that this court decision is a breakthrough.
Read more “Dutch court brings closer judicial review of UK government’s anti-environment policies” »
David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation commissioned by Cameron, has just produced a 373 page report, ‘A Question of Trust’, which, partially at least, restored the fundamental principle of a free society into the toxic atmosphere of MI5/GCHQ’s (and the government’s) obsessive desire to introduce a snoopers’ charter in which the whole population is potentially targeted for algorithmic monitoring, with all the abuse, error and hacking that that entails. He rightly condemns the current Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) as “incomprehensible, undemocratic, unnecessary and intolerable”. But his central proposal is to shift oversight of the surveillance process from the Home Secretary to a new independent body and in particular to pass the power to authorise surveillance away from government to a panel of senior judges. This is long overdue and should be strongly supported.
Read more “The spooks are still playing dirty tricks to get their snoopers’ charter: they must be stopped” »